Businesses with big drops in electricity consumption during pandemic: Car dealers, dry cleaners, restaurants
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Businesses with big drops in electricity consumption during pandemic: Car dealers, dry cleaners, restaurants

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The new car lot at El Cajon Ford sits idle amid the Coronavirus pandemic, on March 27, 2020, in El Cajon, Calif.

The new car lot at El Cajon Ford sits idle amid the Coronavirus pandemic, on March 27, 2020, in El Cajon, Calif. (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Want to know how much the COVID-19 outbreak has affected businesses? A good indication comes by simply measuring how much electricity they're using.

And data gathered by Innowatts, an analytics company based in Houston, show that if you're a car dealer, a restaurant owner and even a dry cleaner, you're in a world of hurt. Each of those areas reported reductions of 51% or more in electricity consumption last month as business activity evaporated in the wake of coronavirus restrictions.

But a handful of businesses actually increased their electricity use.

"Our global economy is an electricity-based economy," said Sid Sachdeva, CEO of Innowatts.

His company crunched energy demand numbers compiled by grid operators across the country - including the California Independent System Operator - in conjunction with data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and overlaid the figures with predictive models to compare electricity use from the first full week of March to the last week of the month.

All told, the analysis concluded seven areas saw declines in electricity consumption of more than 40 percent.

"We were surprised by the size of the drop in electric consumption across a majority of retail segments," Sachdeva said in an email to the Union-Tribune. "And with that, the corresponding immediate and negative impact on our small business across the nation."

The single largest drop came from car dealerships, which saw consumption slip 67 percent.

"With uncertainty in the economy, people are holding off on major purchases like vehicles," Sachdeva said.

Dry cleaning businesses were right behind, with electricity use plummeting 65 percent.

"People are staying at home and primarily wearing leisure clothing," Sachdeva said. "Usually, clothes that require dry cleaning, like suits and dresses and the like, are for office and business settings, or party and dinner events. With stay-at-home orders, people aren't going into the office and parties and the like are all canceled."

The restaurant business saw a 51% decline in electricity consumption as many eateries were reduced to take-out orders or completely shut their doors.

But there was one exception: Pizza parlors, according to the Innowatts analysis, on average increased their electricity use by 20 percent.

Already well-positioned in the carry-out business pre-COVID-19, pizza chains have so far weathered the financial storm. Big chains such as Papa John's and Pizza Hut have ramped up efforts to make deliveries "contactless" to ensure social distancing.

From March 23 to April 19, Domino's reported a 7.1% increase in domestic sales, compared to the same period last year.

"Americans love pizza," Sachdeva said.

They also seem to like booze, as liquor stores turned in a 19% increase in electricity consumption in March.

But the single largest increase in usage came from the storage unit business - up 23 percent.

With universities shutting down, students across the country scrambled to find places to put their dormitory furniture and personal belongings. Some businesses have also looked to find places to temporarily store their supplies amid the lockdown.

"We also think people may be spending more time spring cleaning and organizing since they have more time on their hands," Sachdeva said.

Pamela Hickey, office manager at Morena Storage in Linda Vista, Calif., said the 1,700-unit facility is up to 87% capacity after an influx of college students - many from nearby University of San Diego - came to the store last month.

"We do that every year but the only difference was instead of doing it in May, we did it in March," Hickey said. "We had to jump into high gear but we already knew what we were doing."

Hickey said Morena Storage has seen an uptick in customers looking to lease larger units.

"I've had some new tenants who were moving in with friends or family and have been putting things in storage because it was cheaper to do that than to try to pay rent," said.

All told, though, just four business segments in the Innowatts analysis reported increased electricity usage while 11 segments saw decreases. Grocery stores saw no change.

"COVID-19 is causing deep and sudden impacts on businesses of all shapes," Sachdeva said, adding that without a steady and prolonged economic recovery, businesses such as fitness centers, bars, salons and dentistry will be hurt more than others.

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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